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Balamand and Beyond: The State of Catholic-Orthodox Relations

An international dialogue at a monastery in Lebanon bolsters relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

In the mid-1960s the long and often hostile isolation between the Catholic and (Byzantine) Orthodox churches finally came to an end. The bishops of Rome and Constantinople, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, broke the ice when they met in the Holy Land in 1964. In 1965 the excommunications that Rome and Constantinople had hurled at each other in 1054 were abrogated and “erased from the memory of the church.” In 1967 the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch visited each other at their sees in Rome and Istanbul. This set in motion a “dialogue of love” that the two church leaders realized had to take place before a meaningful theological dialogue could begin. The two churches had to learn first to trust each other again.

So it was only in 1976 that a joint commission was set up to prepare for the establishment of a formal theological dialogue. In November 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I in Istanbul, they announced the establishment of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. It held its first organizational meeting on the Greek islands of Patmos and Rhodes in 1980. The commission decided to meet in plenary session every two years, with local Orthodox and Catholic churches alternating as hosts.

In its first 10 years the commission made major progress, producing three common theological documents that sketched out wide areas of agreement. Meeting in Munich in 1982, the commission issued a document describing the church and the Eucharist in light of the mystery of the Trinity. At Bari, Italy, in 1987, it adopted a text on the degree of common faith required to have sacramental communion, and on the sacraments of initiation. And in 1988, meeting at the Orthodox monastery of Valamo in Finland, the joint commission elaborated a document on ordination and apostolic succession. It also decided that the next topic of discussion would be conciliarity and authority in the church. The members of the dialogue were carefully laying a foundation of things that Catholics and Orthodox have in common in order to address more divisive issues at a later stage.

Then in 1989 the Iron Curtain collapsed. Religious persecution in Central and Eastern Europe – as we knew it – ended. In Ukraine and Romania the Greek Catholic churches that had languished underground for decades emerged and began to resume a normal ecclesial life. The Orthodox had suffered from a different form of persecution, which included extremely tight government control and lip service to the communist dictators. The Orthodox were now able to shake off government control and function freely once again.

Sadly, these happy events also set the stage for an unedifying clash between Greek Catholics and Orthodox that would warm the heart of the most dour communist bureaucrat. The immediate concrete issues centered on the return of those Greek Catholic churches and properties confiscated by the communists and turned over to the local Orthodox Churches.

But there were deeper issues that exacerbated the problem. The region’s Greek Catholics had been isolated from the rest of the Catholic Church during Vatican II and its aftermath. They had not experienced the conciliar reforms or the new relationship with the Orthodox that developed outside the communist world during the persecutions. This explains why it was very difficult for many Greek Catholics to accept these new realities. Some accused the local Orthodox churches of collaborating willingly with the communist persecutors. Others continued to support pre-Vatican II notions according to which Eastern Catholics would try to attract Orthodox faithful away from their churches and into the Catholic fold. Today, however, the Holy See forbids Catholics to engage in such proselytistic activity among the Orthodox.

Many Orthodox, however, question the legitimacy of the Eastern Catholic churches and even their right to exist. They are convinced that since some Eastern Catholic churches had split from the Orthodox long ago (as a result of Catholic missionary activity), they are proselytistic in their very essence. For them, the reemergence of the Greek Catholic churches in Central and Eastern Europe is evidence, in spite of the Holy See’s declarations to the contrary, of the Catholic Church’s desire to expand at the expense of the Orthodox Church. Moreover many of these Orthodox say that as Byzantine Christians these Catholics properly belong in their Orthodox mother churches; therefore, the Holy See must take action to dissolve the Eastern Catholic churches. All this explains why, when the international commission for dialogue met at its sixth plenary session at Freising, West Germany, in June 1990, the Orthodox delegation insisted that the theological agenda be set aside and that exclusive attention be given to an analysis of the existence and activity of the Eastern Catholic churches. If the dialogue was to continue, the Catholic side had no choice but to agree to this request. A preliminary statement was released in view of a fuller elaboration of the problem that was to take place at the seventh plenary session scheduled for June 1992.

The 1992 session was delayed for a year. It finally met in June 1993 at the Orthodox monastery at Balamand, Lebanon, under the auspices of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. The Orthodox delegation, however, was incomplete. For various reasons, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Orthodox churches of Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and the Czech and Slovak republics were not present. Nevertheless the commission was able to finish work on a new text entitled, “Uniatism, Method of Union in the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion.”

Now known as “The Balamand Document,” this text makes two main affirmations. The former method of uniatism is rejected. It is opposed to the common tradition of the two churches. Yet the document unequivocally affirms that the Eastern Catholic churches “have the right to exist and to act in response to the spiritual needs of their faithful.”

In this way the commission attempted to respond to concerns expressed by both sides. Since many Orthodox feared that a reemergence of the Greek Catholic churches in Central and Eastern Europe was evidence of the continuation of a Catholic policy of proselytism among the Orthodox through the use of Orthodox rituals and traditions, that former policy (which is what the commission means by the term “uniatism”) is specifically rejected.

Since many Greek Catholics feared that rejection of uniatism as a policy called into question the very existence of their churches, the document states without equivocation that they do have a right to exist and to care for their faithful. Indeed, the document also calls for Greek Catholics to be integrated into the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue at all levels.

The document, therefore, rests on two important principles. The first is religious freedom. Greek Catholics have a right to be Greek Catholics, Orthodox have a right to be Orthodox. The second principle is that Catholic-Orthodox relations must be based on what the commission calls “a sister-church ecclesiology.” Insofar as Catholics and Orthodox recognize each other as sister churches, each possesses the means of salvation. Thus missionary activity by one church among the faithful of the other is ruled out.

Balamand also offers a series of practical rules to help improve relations between Greek Catholics and Orthodox. Both sides are admonished to:

• Avoid seeking the passage of faithful from one church to another.

• Avoid using the suffering of martyrs as a way of making accusations against other Christians.

• Adhere to the principles of freedom of conscience and expression and to apply these principles when undertaking pastoral projects.

• Seek joint resolution of concrete problems through dialogue and, when possible, through local joint commissions.

• Avoid all physical, verbal and moral violence.

• Respect the liturgical celebrations of the other church.

• Foster ecumenical formation of future priests (especially in what concerns the apostolic succession and valid sacraments of the other church).

• Strive for a common reading of the history of the two churches and their relations.

• Avoid recourse to civil courts to solve concrete problems.

• Initiate fraternal dialogue.

• Avoid tendentious use of the mass media and honor all those who suffered persecution, regardless of church affiliation.

The document ends with an expression of the hope that since all proselytism by Catholics at the expense of the Orthodox has been excluded, the obstacles that prevented certain autocephalous Orthodox churches from attending the dialogue will have been overcome and that the work “already so happily begun” might continue.

The document, then, represents a major step forward in the dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Given the depth of suspicion and mutual mistrust between Catholics and Orthodox in Eastern and Central Europe, the success of the Balamand meeting is a testament to the vibrancy of the drive of these two ancient churches toward full communion.

This fact was soon echoed in Rome and Istanbul, where both Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I expressed satisfaction with what was achieved at Balamand. The Pope characterized the document as a new step that should help local Catholic and Orthodox churches develop better relations and cooperate in pastoral activity. The Ecumenical Patriarch stated that Balamand shows that Catholics have had a change of heart in their attitudes toward the Orthodox.

At the local level, however, reactions to Balamand have been decidedly mixed. In Greece, where there is only a tiny Eastern Catholic community, the Orthodox response has been extremely negative. The monks on Mount Athos wrote a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch in December 1993 in which they denounced Balamand: the Orthodox cannot recognize the Catholic Church as a sister church until Rome renounces all its “cacodoxies” (evil doctrines). The Orthodox Church of Greece, which did not send a delegation to Balamand, has judged the document unacceptable from the Orthodox point of view. In December 1994 the Holy Synod in Athens sent a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch rejecting Balamand because it does not condemn the existence of the Eastern Catholic churches and because it prematurely implies a recognition by the Orthodox of the ecclesial reality of the Catholic Church and the validity of its sacraments.

In Romania, Orthodox and Greek Catholics reacted to the document in opposite ways. Meeting on 6-7 July 1993, only a few days after the Balamand meeting, the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church formally accepted the document and pledged to continue to participate in the dialogue with Rome if the principles elaborated in the document were adopted by the Holy See and applied in Romania. But the next day, on 8 July, the Greek Catholic bishops sent a letter to Pope John Paul II fiercely denouncing Balamand. They took strong exception to its rejection of uniatism as a method of achieving unity with the Orthodox and stated that it was precisely this uniatism that had brought them liberation from the darkness of domination by the Orthodox “Greco-Bulgarian Church,” had made possible an “understanding and experience of the Gospel of Christ,” and had provided them with strength to resist the communists. The bishops rejected all the documents produced by the international commission for dialogue.

The reaction to Balamand has been the most hopeful in Ukraine. On the Orthodox side, the Moscow Patriarchate has not officially reacted to the document, but it has agreed in discussions with officials of the Holy See that Balamand should constitute the working basis for better relations. The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Myroslav Ivan Cardinal Lubachivsky, has welcomed the text. In a letter written to the Catholic members of the international dialogue in August 1993, the Cardinal stated that Balamand had proven that the fears of some of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic faithful about the work of the dialogue with the Orthodox Were unfounded. While he expressed some reservations about certain aspects of the text, the Cardinal pledged to apply the practical rules of the document in Ukraine. In addition, the Cardinal issued an encyclical entitled “On Christian Unity” on A aril 1994, in which the Cardinal reviewed the progress made in Catholic-Orthodox relations since the 1960s and again offered a positive assessment of the Balamand text. He also stated unequivocally that his church recognizes the validity of Orthodox sacraments.

In the United States, the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation released a response to Balamand in October 1994. The American Catholic and Orthodox theologians rejoiced that the international commission could complete its work on this difficult question. Although they pointed out some shortcomings in text, in general they regarded it as “a strong and positive contribution to the theological dialogue between our churches.”

Now that two years have passed since the Balamand Document was produced, Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has entered a crucial phase. While the commission considers that it has dealt with the question of uniatism adequately, and plans to return to its original theological agenda at its next meeting in late 1995, there are still some Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches that have not accepted its conclusions.

Whether Balamand gains general acceptance over time will depend in part on the leadership of the two churches. But it will be just as important for Greek Catholics and Orthodox in their historic homelands in Central and Eastern Europe to learn not only to trust one another, but also to forgive and love one another. Much of what needs to happen is already recommended in the Balamand Document. But more than anything else, the situation calls for a profound conversion, a real change of heart.

With the passing of time there is reason to hope that eventually charity will prevail in their relationship. This is not an empty hope. There are some places, especially in the Middle East, where such a relationship already exists between the two groups. When this happens in Europe, a major obstacle to the reestablishment of full communion between Catholic and Orthodox will have been removed. It will hasten the day when we will find ourselves once again standing around the same table, sharing in the same body and blood of the Lord.

Father Roberson served on the staff of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 1988 to 1992.

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